Commercially valuable

You've seen how simple design is good for designers and developers. You might not be surprised to know that it's also good for businesses. Simplicity sells. Many people's eyes are being opened to the moral grey areas of modern business, and they don't seem to like it. Simple design helps companies avoid the temptation of buying and selling data, filling their websites with bloated tracking scripts, and squeezing every last penny out of their customers.

Ken Segall explains why simplicity is more and more valuable over time:

Given the option, any sane person will choose the simple path over one that's more complicated. If that still seems too obvious, then you're well on your way to appreciating one of Simplicity's most outstanding attributes. It looks, acts, and sounds perfectly natural. Your head involuntarily nods in agreement. But never underestimate the degree to which people crave this kind of clarity and respond positively to it. Most of us live in a world that's become increasingly complicated, where Simplicity isn't all that easy to find. It boils down to basic supply and demand: As Simplicity becomes more rare, it also becomes more valuable. So your ability to keep things simple, and protect things from becoming more complicated, becomes more valuable as well.

John Maeda tells us that your customers will love your products for their simplicity.

People not only buy, but more importantly love, designs that can make their lives simpler. For the foreseeable future, complicated technologies will continue to invade our homes and workplaces, thus simplicity is bound to be a growth industry.

Gerry McGovern believes that it's time for a more honest, more useful, simpler approach:

We are seeing the emergence of an anti-visual design movement, as more and more customers are becoming distrustful of smiling faces, soft tones and soft language. As customers' eyes are opened to the reality of how most organizations actually treat them, we're getting banner blindness, marketing blindness, advertising blindness, communication and PR spin blindness. For too long, beauty has been used to cover for the beast of greed and narcissism ... Simplicity, usefulness, functionality, details and facts, transparency; these are the pillars of the new digital design. We trust what we can quickly and easily use but only as long as it's useful.

Often the focus of companies and their designs seems to be on things other than the people who give them money. These waters are muddied even further by companies that don't make money from their users at all, but that's a topic for another book. In the majority of cases, thinking about the people you're serving is a pretty safe bet. None of them are going to turn away from more simple, more honest, less bloated.

Nick Heer nicely summarises that many companies don't seem to be thinking about their users when making design or technology decisions:

But a lot of the stuff we're seeing is a pile-up of garbage on seemingly every major website that does nothing to make visitors happier — if anything, much of this stuff is deeply irritating and morally indefensible ... The combination of huge images that serve little additional purpose than decoration, several scripts that track how far you scroll on a page, and dozens of scripts that are advertising related means that text-based webpages are now obese and torpid and excreting a casual contempt for visitors.

In the book Super Normal, Jasper Morrison suggests that design has lost its way.

Design ... has become a major source of pollution. Encouraged by glossy lifestyle magazines, and marketing departments, it's become a competition to make things as noticeable as possible by means of colour, shape and surprise. It's historic and idealistic purpose, to serve industry and the happy consuming masses at the same time, of conceiving things easier to make and better to live with, seems to have been side-tracked.

Even those designers who claim they're thinking about their users might not be. A few years ago the word "delight" seemed to be very popular. That doesn't seem to be the case now. Perhaps because delight wasn't what our users needed either? Erika Hall suggests that focusing on delight is focusing on the wrong thing. Other qualities, she suggests, are more timeless.

Talking about creating "delightful" user experiences is actually user-hostile when it wrongly presumes that your customer wants to be emotionally involved with your service at all. Fast and invisible are often the better parts of delight.

Google is one of the most successful companies in the world, and that success was built on their search engine. It has always had a very simple home page - famously so. Erika Hall uses their example to teach us that you don't need the extras.

Over time there have been various vain efforts by third-parties to “redesign Google” by adding uncalled-for visual style ... This is a lesson that digital designers continue to cash checks by forgetting. Fast, easy, and useful beats all.

Ken Segall backs this up by explaining the power of simplicity to help people part with their money.

The basic rule of business on the Internet is no different from the one in real-world stores. The faster and simpler you can make the buying experience, the more business you'll do. A goal for every online retailer is to minimize the obstacles that stand between their customers and the "buy" button. When Simplicity is part of the deal, it's just easier for the customer to arrive at a decision and whip out their credit card.

But this doesn't just apply to the buying experience, when a customer is browsing your website or app. It also applies to the products themselves. Being simple at every step isn't just good for your brand. It's good for your business.

When iPad was unveiled, for example, critics complained that it was lacking in features. When competitors' tablets began to arrive, they'd added everything iPad was "missing" to make their devices more attractive to buyers: more ports, memory card slots, etc. Their additions didn't sell. It was the subtractions made by Apple during the design stage that customers found more appealing.

Branding is often seen and thought of as a visual exercise. Logos, colours, gradients, and platform style guides can all reinforce the brand of a company. It's easy to assume that to have a brand, then, you need to have a lot of visual design. Gerry McGovern doesn't think so. Just as "simple" is part of Google's brand, it can be part of yours too. And you don't need visual design to show that you're simple. Craigslist is a brand millions of people trust and look to every day around the world. Their site could be called "ugly".

If your product is actually useful then don't be afraid to show off how useful it is. Don't hide behind big stupid stock images that say absolutely nothing. Don't suffocate your customers with empty marketing jargon when you can actually say something useful. For organizations that are useful, marketing and communication should stress the use ... Unless you need to lie to customers, your branding is your simplicity. Your branding is your usefulness. Every time a customer can find something quickly and easily, that's branding. If the product you make starts every single time without fail, that's branding. Transparent pricing is branding. Great customer service is branding. Branding can be about what is good and what is useful.

Of course, there are many successful companies that make heavy use of modern, flashy visual design, and are successful. The important point is that you have a choice between simple and complicated. And successful companies have shown, again and again, that simple is just a powerful an approach as complicated, as Ryan Bigge tells us.

Boring doesn't always save lives, but it usually improves them. The titans of the web — Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Amazon, Dropbox, GitHub — look boring when compared to Snapchat, The Outline, or Bejeweled. But boring companies have millions of repeat users because their products actually work.

The benefits of simplicity aren't only an option for new products. They represent a huge opportunity for crowded, old-fashioned markets to reinvent themselves. Steve Ellis at the Change Sciences Group tells us that industries like banking have a chance to impress their users more:

There's an opportunity for banks and credit unions to retool products and services around simplicity as their central value proposition and make good on that proposition with the right kind of product and interactive design.

And organisations that pursue simplicity can find great results. Ken Segall explains that the key to the success of Apple's iPod was simplicity.

The genius of Apple is that it often sees human potential where other companies do not, and it has the design and engineering skill to bring its vision to life. Sometimes, as happened with iPod and the music player market, Apple doesn't actually invent the idea from scratch. The concept may already exist but be missing only one thing: Simplicity. And that makes all the difference in the world.

For another example, look at how Ida Aalen and the Norwegian Cancer Society improved their results by simplifying their design:

The previous NCS homepage had several banners and menu items pointing to different ways of supporting the NCS. Today, there's just the “Support us” item in the menu, and the banners are gone. Despite this, the effect on the digital fundraising has been astounding ... The number of one-time donations has tripled (up 198%). The number of regular donors registering each year has quadrupled (up 288%). The total sum from regular donors each year has quintupled(!) (up 382%)

Such massive changes, which resulted from removing things rather than adding anything, might surprise some people. It gets at the idea that often the things which have the biggest impact are not necessarily related to visual design at all. Visual design can help to highlight, or to deliver, but what are you highlighting and delivering? Mikael Cho tells us that companies like Apple aren't necessarily successful because of their visual design, but because they're telling the right story, and visual design is one way to deliver it.

Because we've seen the results of visual beauty in product design, we expect putting this level of focus on visual beauty in our brand's message will have the same effect. I've seen companies spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting a website, email, or ad's visual design while spending the last few hours on writing the words that will make up that design. Our intense focus on visual design can blind us from focusing on the most important part of the message: The story.

The same article goes on to say that their own attempts to tell a better story made a difference.

Though this example is limited in that it was constrained to people in our community who might prefer a more story-oriented approach (since this is our usual style), it supported our hunch that beauty isn't always best. And that being more authentic (i.e. telling our story just like we'd tell it to a friend) has a bigger impact than we might expect.

One of the most powerful things about telling a story is that it often takes little more than words. Of course, visuals can be added to support the story, when necessary. Since, as the article points out, it can lead directly to sales, this is one of the most cost efficient ways of being commercially successful.

Telling a good story, whether that's through email, film, or any medium, creates a connection. And it's this connection that leads to attention, which leads to trust, which leads to sales.

This truth is key to even those companies that do rely on very advanced visuals to make a living. Ed Catmull at Pixar makes it clear:

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn't matter if you aren't getting the story right.

A mistake that many technology companies make is to assume that they need to follow different principles when they sell to businesses, rather than individuals. When it comes to simplicity, this is not true. One example of a company selling the same way to both businesses and individuals is Apple, and simplicity is part of the key to their success.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to follow its simpler route, advertising to consumers and businesses alike. And guess what? It continues to sell by the millions, and there has yet to be a backlash of angry consumers or businesspeople complaining that they haven't been spoken to exclusively. Simplicity has universal appeal.

It should be clear by now that simplicity is a very good way to make money. As Ken summarises:

It should now be considered a basic law of commerce: Simplicity attracts.

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